When you think of National Parks or National Monuments you probably think of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial, and while those are awesome, there are tons of other smaller sites maintained by the National Park Service that all help either preserve some of the most scenic and natural spots in in the USA, or document a historical moment in time. Sometimes, if you get lucky, you’ll find one that does both.
The Cape Henry Memorial and Lighthouse, is one of those unique spots. It is nestled along the Chesapeake Bay and marked by its two lighthouses (the old one that visitors can climb, and the newer one that is still in use and run by the Coast Guard). Its got views for days and also marks two major moments in American history.
It is the landing spot of the first settlers for the Jamestown colony. Yup. This is where those Englishmen landed in 1607, before they headed for their newfound home.
And if you were there on September 5, 1781, you’d have had a perfect vantage point for the infamous Battle of the Capes. A famed battle of the Revolutionary War where French Admiral Comte deGrasse was able to defeat Admiral Graves, cutting off British troops from getting to Yorktown. And yes, I was singing from Hamilton the entire time I was walking around.
There is also the Cape Henry Lighthouse. I love a lighthouse and will trek to them all over the place, and this one, is pretty remarkable. The original lighthouse, was built in 1792 and was the first one built by the United States of America. While that’s not old compared to landmarks you can find in Europe, there is something really impressive about climbing the 191 stairs to the top and thinking that this tiny structure is over 200 years old, especially when you read that it was damaged during the Civil War.
Because of concerns about its structural integrity, they built a new working lighthouse in 1881 and left this one as a monument, but nearly a century and a half later it is still standing and in good condition. The little skinny ladder at the top gave me some pause, but its worth it for the view.
One of the coolest parts of visiting this park is that it sits on an active military base. I might have panicked that Waze took me in the wrong direction as I arrived at Fort Story and saw the gates for the US Navy, but the staff was very nice.
Currently, for security reasons, you park your car in a lot just inside the gates, then go through a security checkpoint, you’ll have to leave your big bags and anything of that ilk in the car. Make sure if you are driving you don’t have alcohol or anything questionable in your vehicle when you arrive. Then they have a nice shuttle, with a quick audio tour that gets you acclimated. There are some clear rules about where you can and can’t walk on the property (i.e., don’t go down on the beach unless you want to be detained for committing a federal crime, which I’m guessing you probably aren’t all that interested in doing). You also have to have a valid ID for anyone over 16, which you leave at the front (don’t forget to take it back when you return to the gate. I kept having to repeat this in my head, I was worried I’d leave without it!)
It’s a small park, for sure. I’d allot an hour or two for a visit at most (including the time it takes to get through security), but well worth a stop if you are already visiting other Revolutionary War sites (like Yorktown, which is on the other side of the nearby Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel) or want to add a bit of history or lighthouse climbing to your trip to Virginia Beach.
Questions? Comments? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!